CEO of Women's World Banking Gives Broad View of Trends in Microfinance
Mary Ellen Iskenderian '86 has noticed a disturbing trend in microfinance over the last several years. Iskenderian is the president and CEO of Women's World Banking, which works with microfinance providers to create financial products and helps mainstream banks get into the space. She spoke to Yale SOM students on April 4 at an event sponsored by Net Impact.
Iskenderian told the audience that as microfinance has become bigger, commercial lenders have become more prevalent, fundamentally changing the nature of who is being served. "There are now bottom lines and other commercial pressures," she said. "As a result we've seen a major drop in women getting loans. Excluding 51 % of the market doesn't make much sense, but it's happening."
Women's World Banking has 39 affiliates in 27 countries, giving Iskenderian a broad view of trends in microfinance. What she is seeing has convinced her that her organization's mission is more important than ever. Women, she said, are poorer than men, making up 77 percent of the world's poor. In times of crisis, they are more vulnerable than men. And when you give women the chance to earn money, she said, they use it to improve the living conditions of the entire family. "We've found women use it to educate their children, provide healthcare for their family, and improve their household," she said. "They can have an enormous impact on poverty."
Iskenderian said that her organization has been working on a suite of products that she hopes will allow women and girls to take better control of their financial lives. They include ways to expand credit to individual women, apart from the traditional microfinance model of lending to groups; new avenues for women and girls to save money; innovative ways to increase financial literacy; and a health insurance initiative that in Jordan has already sold 52,000 policies. She noted that the health insurance is particularly important because the top reason micro-enterprises have to be decapitalized or liquidated is a health issue. "When women save it's almost always against an unexpected health emergency," Iskenderian said.